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The Name Beyond Every Name

Exodus 3:1-15

· Exodus,Moses,Justice,Formation,Solidarity

Exodus 3:1 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

7 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”[a] He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord,[b] the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,

and this my title for all generations.

*****

Have you ever wondered what your teachers were like when they were in school? When you saw them in front of the class as the “master,” as a person with this tremendous body of knowledge, it’s hard to imagine them in any other way. But obviously none of them were born that way (though that’s kind of a funny thought). No, at one point, your teachers had no more knowledge or confidence about their subject than you did in their class. Some of your teachers were the annoying kid who always had the answer and asked too many questions, but some of them were the slackers goofing off in the back of the class or the kids who took a C but had their interest piqued by one article they read and that lead them to read more and more until they started teaching the stuff themselves.

One of the interesting things about the Bible is that it not only gives us the teachings of great teachers; it also tells us how they learned, how God worked with them to shape their lives. God doesn’t just give us the 10 Commandments and say “Do this.” No, the laws come within a story of how God forms a people who are called to live in that way. God does not expect us just to be the people we’re called to be automatically. God works with the people God calls to give them the tools they really need (which is not always the same as the tools we think we need) to do what God is calling them to do. This morning, we hear about Moses’ “training,” how God prepares Moses to do the work of liberation.

Moses’ training occurs in the wilderness, the desert. He’s in the desert because he’s had to flee his home in Egypt. Moses is no longer welcome in Pharaoh’s house. The story tells us: One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

Moses went out to his people and saw their forced labor. As Moses grows up, he sees the way his people are being treated by the house in which he’s grown up. He sees the way his people are oppressed, how they are not payed fairly for their work, how Pharaoh has men with guns at the ready in case they get angry about being oppressed, and all because they were born into a certain family. One day, he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and he gets angry at the injustice of it. This is not okay! And Moses looks around to make sure he won’t get caught, and he kills the Egyptian for beating his kin.

I imagine Moses is fairly pleased with himself at that moment. Maybe a little worried he’ll get caught, but ultimately pleased. Have you ever had that self-satisfied feeling when you just know you’ve done the right thing, and not even for yourself, but for the sake of someone else?

But the next day, Moses goes back out and he sees two Hebrews fighting. He runs up to them, his kin, and tells them to stop fighting. But the look at him and say, “What are you going to do, kill us, too? Who made you our leader?”

Moses had thought he was helping. But the people he was trying to help clearly did not find him helpful. When Moses killed the Egyptian, he probably didn’t consider that his people might be punished for that act. He didn’t consider that maybe they would install someone worse in that Egyptian’s position. He didn’t consider that maybe the Israelites didn’t want someone who would act on their behalf without organizing with them. He didn’t consider the broader ramifications of his actions beyond just that moment. He just acted. There’s a reason for the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Sometimes we have the best intentions but the world doesn’t conform to our intentions. Things are more complicated than we imagine and so “good intentions” don’t matter much compared to how our actions are received.

The problem here comes from the fact that while Moses is a Hebrew, nursed by his own mother and kin to the slaves, at the same time, Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s house. He is raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. His name is an Egyptian name. He might get angry to see the Hebrews in bondage, but he is not in bondage. He grow up in Pharaoh’s house. He grows up in the “nice” neighborhood with the “good” schools. When he gets pulled over the charioteers just tell him to go a little slower next time and let him off with a warning. Perhaps he’s so upset to see his kin beaten because that’s not the kind of thing he’s used to seeing, much less experiencing, even though they have to live with it every single day.

So when Moses chooses to act, he acts as a member of Pharaoh’s house. He acts from above instead of alongside (or even behind) the people he means to help. Moses has been trained in Pharaoh’s house. He thinks in Pharaoh’s categories. He has learned how to name what he sees in Pharaoh’s space using Pharaoh’s words. There are other influences in his life (his biological mother) that are a part of him too and that eventually help him to hear his people’s cries, but he’s still a part of Pharaoh’s house. He’s kind of like the freshman in college who grew up in the wealthy suburb but is now reading about injustice in the world, and they’re getting really angry about things they see in their own community but haven’t quite dealt with the way they embody those things.

Moses is the ally who wants to help but doesn’t realize that his desire to help runs roughshod over what the people actually need from him. As a member of Pharaoh’s house, he would’ve grown up next to people who know how to manage other people, who know how to assess a situation and determine the best possible way forward, who know how to take control and get results. That’s what you do: you assess and you act in order to manage the situation. And so when Moses sees injustice, and his conscience is rightly set on fire with anger over what he’s seeing, he acts as someone who has grown up in Pharaoh’s house. He takes control, he assesses the situation and then acts on what he sees because it must be right. And so Moses kills the Egyptian.

But Moses doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’s just been taught to think that he does. Moses thinks he’s doing the right thing, but he doesn’t really understand the day to day experiences of his own people and so he doesn’t know what they really need. And apparently Moses wasn’t as in control of the situation as he thought he was because someone had watched him do what he did!

It’s then that I imagine Moses recognizes that he has never really been a member of Pharaoh’s house. He might’ve lived in that space, he might’ve been trained there, but when he harms an actual Egyptian, he knows that Pharaoh will not have his back. He’s still a Hebrew. And so Moses, remembering that he is in fact already an exile, goes deeper into exile. Moses flees the house that was his, but never really his, and goes into the desert. And it’s in the desert where his re-education will begin.

In the desert, Moses finds himself on the outside. He is an immigrant in a strange land, and he’s not an innocent child either: he’s a criminal, a murderer even. But that’s the kind of person whom God meets. God comes to the outsiders, and so leaving Pharaoh’s house is the beginning of Moses’ training. He learned certain habits in Pharaoh’s house that he’s going to have to unlearn in the desert as an outsider. Jethro, a priest of Midian, takes him in and Moses begins to work in the fields. He’s not a slave, but he is a resident alien, and so in the desert he finds himself in closer proximity to his own people than when he was in Pharaoh’s house. He begins learning to see the world from the perspective of an outsider, an exile, someone who must make a life somewhere where they are not really at home.

In that place, one day Moses is out working, when he saw a bramble that was on fire and yet not consumed. And out of the bramble the voice of the LORD spoke to Moses: “I have heard the cries of my people Israel, whom Pharaoh uses up and yet cannot consume. I hear their cries and see how Pharaoh oppresses them, and so Moses, I’m sending you to bring my people out of Egypt, to bring good news to the poor, to declare freedom to the captive and release to the oppressed. I’m calling you to fight for your people.”

I imagine it was hard for Moses to hear this. He eventually argues with God and does everything he can to get out of this calling. Was it not his desire to fight for his people that got him in this mess in the first place? He’d already tried to help but he’d probably only made things worse for them and himself. But God does desire justice and freedom for the Hebrews.

The problem wasn’t Moses’ desire. The problem was the tools he had at hand to do that work. He had tried to use instruments of power from a place of power, standing above in a stance of mastery, and so his own people don’t trust him. But now Moses is an exile, and he will come back to the people not as member of Pharaoh’s house but in the name of the Hebrew God, the God who came near to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Moses asks God, “When I go back to the people, what shall I tell them your name is?” And the LORD answers, “Tell them, I am who I am. Tell them I AM sent you.” (This reminds me of the kind of thing my grandfather would say to me. I’d be complaining about something and he’d say “It is what it is.” And I’d think “That’s not helpful!”) God gives Moses a name that is not really a name. I AM both names and un-names God. It identifies God as the one who cannot be contained within any identification.

We can’t bring God under our control by our words and we can’t bend God’s will to our own with our plots and schemes. The training Moses has received in Pharaoh’s house might have some use, but it ultimately cannot grasp the God who makes real justice possible. God wants to do justice for the Hebrews, but Moses has learned to think about how that is possible in Pharaoh’s categories. Moses needs to unlearn the “names” he has learned so that “I AM” can teach him what justice really looks like from the position of an outsider. Moses steps outside of everything he knows, every “name” he’s learned, so that the God who has a name beyond any other name can teach him a different way to work for his people. To learn what God needs him to learn, he has to become an exile like his people and unlearn the names he’s learned in Pharaoh’s house.

This time in the desert, then, is how God trains Moses for the work of liberation. Moses goes from being hotheaded and a bit aloof to someone who has encountered God in exile. I hope we are as well-intentioned as Moses at the beginning of this story, burning with passion for justice, for the right things to win out. But for those of us who live in comfort, who have a place to lay our heads and know that our next meal is waiting in the fridge, who have never been threatened because of the color of our skin, I wonder if we would be willing to give up those comforts, to step outside of our security, to question the names and the concepts that we hold dearest in order to seek out an encounter with the God who is beyond every name, in order to learn from our neighbors themselves what they really need. If God can train Moses, perhaps we can learn to hear God’s voice and stand with our neighbors, too. Amen.

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